Chapter 23: Harm to groups in society

If we zoom out to a societal level, an important impact of deceptive patterns is that they target some groups in society much more than others – vulnerable groups. This is particularly problematic because those who suffer most often are not in a position to speak up about it, so it can be rather hidden. The disparate impacts on vulnerable groups also makes this an equity issue, exacerbating the problems they already face in life.

Broadly speaking, most deceptive patterns operate by exploiting human cognitive limitations. This means that people who have greater cognitive limitations are more vulnerable than others. Here are some of the types of vulnerable groups that are impacted by deceptive patterns.

People who suffer from time poverty

If someone doesn’t have time to read things and carefully apply their critical thinking skills, they’re more likely to be caught out by a deceptive pattern. Then, if they are caught out, they need to find the time to complain, return items, get a refund, or rectify the problem in some way. Consider the difference between a wealthy individual who has a four-day working week and no dependents, and a low-income parent who works three jobs and has to care for their three young kids and a sick elderly parent. It’s quite obvious that if they realise they are caught out by a deceptive pattern, the first individual will much more easily find the time to remedy the situation, while the latter may never find the time, and might have to simply swallow the loss.

People with low education levels

Deceptive patterns work by targeting our perception, comprehension and decision-making capabilities. If someone is not good at dealing with complex sentences or numbers, they have to place their trust in the website or app, which makes them very vulnerable to manipulation. In 2021, researchers Lugiri and Strahilevitz carried out a series of experiments involving 3,932 participants, and found that the less-educated individuals were significantly more susceptible to mild deceptive patterns than their well-educated counterparts.1

People with low income

In their 2022 staff report, the FTC argued that people with low income may use mobile devices as their primary means of accessing the internet.2 The small screens on these devices cause information to be hidden, necessitating a large amount of scrolling, making these users vulnerable to deceptive patterns. The report explains: ‘such dark patterns may have a differential impact on lower-income consumers or other vulnerable populations who are more likely to rely on a mobile device as their sole or primary access to the internet.’...

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Since 2010, Harry Brignull has dedicated his career to understanding and exposing the techniques that are employed to exploit users online, known as “deceptive patterns” or “dark patterns”. He is credited with coining a number of the terms that are now popularly used in this research area, and is the founder of the website He has worked as an expert witness on a number of cases, including Nichols v. Noom Inc. ($56 million settlement), and FTC v. Publishers Clearing House LLC ($18.5 million settlement). Harry is also an accomplished user experience practitioner, having worked for organisations that include Smart Pension, Spotify, Pearson, HMRC, and the Telegraph newspaper.